Before they were Tigers: A primer on early Detroit baseball

The 1887 Detroit Wolverines won the National League pennant.

The evolution of organized baseball in Detroit, from a game played strictly by local amateurs to a business employing imported professionals, encompassed the second half of the 19th century. Here are the historic firsts reached along the way:

August 15, 1857
First Recorded Baseball Game in Detroit

The Detroit Free Press reported on an intramural game played by members of the Franklin Baseball Club at the corner of Beaubien and Adams. No score was given. Although cricket was far and away the most popular team sport in 1850s Detroit, it’s safe to assume that some cricketeers had been experimenting with various forms of baseball for a while. The likely reason for this particular contest making it into print was that the team (named after Ben Franklin) included Free Press employees.

August 8, 1859
First Game Between Opposing Clubs

A form of class warfare was played out on the grounds of the Lewis Cass farm, roughly in the vicinity of Grand River and Cass. The Detroits, organized in 1858, were a group of well-heeled citizens who, bored with cricket, decided to give baseball a try. A second team of clerks and office workers was organized in 1859. Because of their long work hours, they practiced at sunrise and called themselves the Early Risers. In first of several games involving the two teams, the Detroits routed the Early Risers, 59-21.

May 12, 1879
First Professional Game in Detroit

Hollinger’s Nine was a house team of Eastern professionals organized specifically as an attraction for Recreation Park, Detroit’s first enclosed ballyard, which opened at Brush and Brady streets in 1879. Although the team was not affiliated with any league, Hollinger’s Nine can be considered the first play-for-pay baseball team to represent Detroit. As such, its 7-1 loss to the Troy (N.Y.) Haymakers before 1,500 park patrons two days after the facility opened can be judged the first professional game in the city and Detroit’s first Opening Day.

May 2, 1881
First Major League Game in Detroit

The Detroit Wolverines, newest member of the country’s most powerful baseball circuit, the National League, inaugurated big-league ball in the city with a 6-4 loss to Buffalo before 1,265 at Recreation Park. The Wolverines won the National League pennant in 1887 and an unusual cross-country “world’s series” against the St. Louis Browns of the American Association. The Wolverines disbanded in 1888 after eight seasons.

May 2, 1894
Detroit Tigers’ First Game

Detroit was awarded a franchise in Ban Johnson’s reorganized Western League, a minor-league circuit of eight Midwestern clubs. In its first game, Detroit lost to Toledo, 4-3, at Boulevard Park. The Detroit actually wasn’t referred to as the “Tigers” until 1895; prior to that, they were alternately known as the “Creams” and the “Wolverines.”

April 28, 1896
Tigers’ First Game at Michigan and Trumbull

The Western league Tigers, after having spent their first two seasons at Boulevard Park, christened Bennett Park with a 17-2 drubbing of Columbus.

April 19, 1900
Tigers’ First Game in the American League

The Tigers kicked off play in Ban Johnson’s renamed American League with an 8-0 loss to Buffalo, as Doc Amole twirled a no-hitter. After operating for six seasons as the Western league, the name change signified little; the circuit was still a minor league and a signatory to the National Agreement, ,meaning its players were subject to being drafted by major league clubs.

April 25, 1901
Tigers’ First Major League Game

Before the 1901 season opened, American League owners voted to withdraw from the National Agreement and to declare themselves a major league. This launched a two-year war with the National League over players and territorial rights. At Bennett Park, the Tigers beat Milwaukee, 14-13, in the city’s first big-league contest since 1888. For the purpose of recognizing records and anniversaries, the Tigers and the American League date the team’s history to 1901. But as this primer illustrates, it took a long time for them to get there.

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